Three Steps for Improving Executive Functions for Homeschoolers During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Homeschooling is the newest challenge parents are facing with their digital kids. The coronavirus pandemic has made the United States into a nation of homeschoolers. Most of these kids are receiving online instruction with their classroom teachers for an hour or two per day. The remainder of the day is left to parents who need to keep their kids on task and mastering their academic subjects. But, it’s also a time that parents can devote time and energy to improving their child’s executive functioning skills. And many knowledgeable parents realize it is skills such as executive functions, social-emotional learning, and 21st-century skills that will be crucial to the vocations and demands of the next few decades.

Parents of public school kids that I have spoken to during the coronavirus pandemic see some benefits in their homeschooling. They are able to work closely with their kids, have far more knowledge about what their kids are learning, and can tailor some of the content to match their child’s interests. Parents now have a close up look at how their kids approach their work, how they set academic goals, and how they go about reaching them. In other words, parents are now observers of how kids are using executive functioning skills to complete their core schoolwork. Previously, parents might have observed a child’s reluctance to complete homework after a long day at school, but as a homeschooling teacher, they see how well their child is able to apply planning, organizational, time management, and task initiation skills to a wide swath of academic demands. Because homeschooling allows for more one on one teaching, it also affords parents an opportunity to teach some of these executive functioning skills. 

One of the criticisms of homeschooling in the past was that kids were isolated from others and would have fewer chances to practice nonacademic skills such as executive functions and social-emotional learning. Even in the early 2000s homeschooling coursework was often rote learning focused primarily on core academic subjects. Homeschooled students had fewer opportunities to engage in gym class or social interactions that happened during lunchtime and in project-based learning. This is no longer the case for most homeschoolers – homeschooling parents often find themselves extremely busy taking their kids from one activity to another. These activities have opened the door for practicing and developing executive-functioning skills. Homeschooling students need to problem-solve, learn to share, practice communication skills, and display flexibility in their relationships with others. In addition, homeschool students need to use executive-functioning skills such as organization and planning so they can get their work done beforehand and skills such as task initiation, task persistence, and time management so that they can fit other activities and playdates into their schedules. Because parents can devote more energy to teaching these skills, homeschooled kids might be better able to master them. 

Here are three steps to improve executive functions for homeschoolers:

Teach your children to identify and recognize when they are using executive functions. One of the best ways to improve executive-functioning skills is to help kids understand what executive skills are and how they might help them in a particular environment or activity. For example, recognizing when they were flexible and adapted to playing a game with a variation of accustomed rules is an example of detecting the skill. At LW4K, we refer to this as the “Detect” step. Before children can master a skill, they need to identify, or “detect,”  when they are using it.

Think more about thinking. At their essence, executive functions are cognitive skills that help solve problems. At LW4K, we encourage kids to learn to “Reflect,” or think about how a skill or action helped them to achieve a goal. After being flexible and playing a game by a different set of rules, children who reflect might be able to see how this enhanced their relationships and made the activity more fun.

Encourage trying executive skills in new situations. At LW4K, we call this the “Connect” step, and it may be the most important action. Once children learn to apply skills they have learned in one setting to another, they are more likely to generalize these skills when they are needed. To take our flexibility example a bit further, homeschooled students might learn to apply the skill of being flexible not only to their school relationships but also to a sibling who insists on a new set of rules in their gameplay. 

Homeschooling offers an opportunity for active teaching of social-emotional learning and executive-functioning skills that is often not available in public schools with what might be a limited curriculum. Our new LW4K LIVE program provides direct teaching with kids and gives parents many activities and suggestions to take these skills to a higher level.

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